Futurs d'antan, Futuribles Journal n° 305

Entreprises, travail - Ressources naturelles, énergie, environnement

The Coal Question (1865) (Futures of yesteryear)

The British economist W.S. Jevons (1835-1882) was described by Schumpeter, in his monumental History of Economic Analysis, as "one of the most truly original economists who ever lived". Nevertheless, he does not mention Jevons' book on The Coal Question, published in 1865, which warned of the possibility that the coal deposits of the United Kingdom would inevitably run out in the long term, which led the government to set up a commission of enquiry on this matter (it concluded that the coal seams would be exhausted by 1988...).
Looking at the issue as an economist and not as a geologist or engineer, Jevons challenges the idea that "our coal seams will be found emptied to the bottom, and swept clean like a coal-cellar". In his opinion, the real problem lay instead with the gradual disappearance of the comparative advantage Britain then enjoyed relative to its competitors thanks to the size and relative cheapness of its coal reserves. He drew the depressing conclusion that he put in the form of the following dilemma: "We have to make the momentous choice between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity."
This disenchanted conclusion calls forth two comments. The first, just an aside, is that it was couched in remarkably similar terms to those that the economist Augustin Cournot was to use in 1877 in his book Revue sommaire des doctrines économiques, in which he talks about the dilemma of governments that, faced with the prospect of coal reserves running out "within five or six centuries", will have to ask themselves "whether it is better for the fire in the hearth of civilization should be kept alight as long as possible or whether it should burn more quickly and give out more intense heat". The other comment is more serious and concerns Jevons' curiously defeatist attitude to the loss of Britain's comparative advantage as coal became more expensive in the long term - as if this alone would be enough to bring an end to the country's hegemony...

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